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Criticism as an Art


"I Regard Criticism as an Art"

The quote is from Pauline Kael, answering listeners to the radio station for which she reviewed films during the sixties. They suggested she should try and make a movie herself, if she knew so much about it. Such listeners weren't the only ones she got upset. She quarreled with peers, criticized studio practices, and accused the art-film aficionado of false motives. Distributors frowned when Kael entered the cinema. She enjoys, however, considerable prestige and has a wide and faithful audience. She even has followers, mockingly christened The Paulettes. Since Kael in 1991 retired from regularly reviewing films for The New Yorker, an anthology of her work has been published, For Keeps: Thirty Years at the Movies, as well as a volume of interviews: Conversations with Pauline Kael.

Kael's work is highly stimulating. Her independent stance urges the reader to think for him- or herself, and what more can be expected from criticism. Additionally, she can write. Her prose is lively, clear and witty, and she succeeds in conveying her passion. (Compilations of her reviews bear titles like Movie Love and Going Steady.) You want to see, or see again the films she writes about. Art, however, is more than just style; the view that criticism is an art expresses a notion of what criticism should be.

1. Auteur Theory and Citizen Kane.

The American film critic Andrew Sarris was attracted by the ideas François Truffaut expressed in his 1954 essay Une certaine tendance du cinéma français. Truffaut claimed that film, ideally, is a medium of personal expression for the director, whom, for that reason, was to be regarded as an `auteur'. Sarris would develop this notion in The American Cinema to a full-fledged theory, but the essence of it he has worked out before he wrote that book, in an essay called Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962. Kael responded furiously in Circles an Squares. The gist of her argument is simple: for some films the best starting point for interpretation might be the director, for other films it isn't. Since universality is implied in any theory, the auteur theory doesn't make sense. Sarris took it hard and still doesn't have anything favorable to say about Pauline Kael.

In 1971 Kael's Raising Kane was published. This controversial essay on the realization and meaning of Citizen Kane can be read as a plea against auteurism. Kane, the quintessential auteur film, was a collective achievement, she claims, and the idea of the film was as it were latently present. According to Kael, the writers who came to Hollywood to work for the film studios developed, as a group, the thirties-comedy, a genre which for the better part dealt in some way with journalism. Citizen Kane was in this genre the greatest, and the contributions of scenarist Herman J. Mankiewicz and cameraman Gregg Toland have been severely underestimated, not in the least by Welles. Kael does consider him a genius, but that because he was able to bring the best out of the possibilities and the people he worked with. For Pauline Kael, Welles was nearly everything, but not an auteur.

2. Theory and Wisdom.

Kael's opposition to the auteur theory is a specific case of her opposition to a theoretical notion of film criticism in general. Cinema according to Kael is nothing but films that have been made and will be made. General statements concerning cinema are generalizations that lose all worth once they no longer apply to films and our reactions to them. She accuses Sarris of embracing a primitive form of Platonism. He is looking for fixed concepts and objective standards as if there is a pre-existent Idea of Cinema that can be used to measure films against. Nonsense, Kael says: film, as each art form, is an expression of human experience. Consistent with the quote in the title of the current piece, Kael speaks about her work in terms of experience. She says she tries to get her experience down on paper, and to find out why she reacted in a certain way. Experience is the crucial moment, the fundamental datum. And this goes for both the artist and the public.

Since everybody has experiences, anyone can be a critic? Kael won't deny it, but taste and competence establish the limits of this ability. Kael replaces theory by wisdom. A broad education is essential for a critic - each discipline is worthy of study. Pauline Kael is a declared proponent of an eclectic attitude. And whether you agree with her or not, there's no denying that she's well informed. She's very well-read and she has an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of film. She is at home in art, music, science, and philosophy. And the survey she shows in combining all this makes her criticism not only entertaining, but informative as well.

A major difficulty in Kael's view is the lack of a criterion for criticism. Judgements of taste are debatable, and there is no logical relation between the truth of a sentence and the competence of the one who utters it. (`Two and two is four' is true, even if it's a parrot that says it.) The objective of a theory, of course, is to provide such a criterion. To put it in another way: the theoreticians aim for objectivity, while Kael's method is necessarily subjective. It remains to be seen whether that is a problem.

3. Film and Official Culture.

It is a near contradiction in terms to call Trash, Art, and the Movies Kael's esthetics, but it is very illuminating. It is not true, she writes, that a film is good only if it is a work of art; we go to the movies for pleasure, and that is not necessarily related to good taste or art. Actually, it is the inhabitant bad taste that makes many a movie so enjoyable. Films are for the better part trash, and it is because of that quality that they give opportunity to be freed of official culture for a while. This official culture is edifying, respectable, serious, and in good taste in a crooked way: you are supposed to behave yourself and enjoy Dante. Film, as trash, sidesteps official culture. Not restrained by totem or taboo, one can enjoy what one truly likes.

This subversive gesture, this playfulness, this absence of solemnity, which can be found in a well photographed scene, some good acting or in a funny joke, does not have a negative, purifying value only. It has a positive value in that it refers to art. As the last sentence of Trash has it: `Trash has given us an appetite for art.' It is very well possible that all this view is a generalization of Kael's experiences in the cinema, but what matters is whether she has a point. And who does not have grim recollections of classical music lessons, compulsory literature, or school trips to the museum? And what to make of Charles Bukowski, Iggy Pop, John Cleese or The Rolling Stones? For Kael subjectivity is not a vice, but a virtue.

4. Film as Art.

Does it make any sense to try and appease your appetite for art in cinema? You may try, but it's not easy. One of Kael's first publications bears the ominous title Movies, the Desperate Art. Most movies barely get beyond the level of trash. Some do, however. There is, in the first place, a type of film that pushes the positive quality of trash to its limit. Films that are saturated with playfulness, and show great command of the medium as well. Kael mentions, among others, Lubitsch, Von Sternberg, Hitchcock, and the musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. A masterpiece of this kind usually is an enormity too weak to sustain itself. The possibilities of the medium are such that a gifted and successful director is easily tempted to depict what he or she considers a grand vision. This results in unbalanced films of excessive length, often even unfinished, which frequently cause the director's financial downfall. But overwhelming they are. Examples? Intolerance, Greed, Napoléon, Ivan Grozny, Novecento.

This form of cinematic art is necessarily connected to film. That aside, there are films that partake in what I would like to call humanistic art, a form of art that is not connected to a specific medium. The following quote is from Kael's review of Satyajit Ray's Devi.

We see his characters not in terms of good and bad, but as we see our selves, in terms of failures and weaknesses and strength and, above all, as part of a human continuum - fulfilling, altering, and finally accepting ourselves as part of this humanity, recognizing that no matter how much we want to burst the bounds of experience, there is only so much we can do. This larger view of human experience - the simplicity of De Sica at his best, of Renoir at his greatest, is almost miraculously present in every detail of Satyajit Ray's films.

A masterly film of this type is one that is imbued in this humanism and also meets the aforementioned criteria. To give some more examples: Altman, Coppola, early Scorcese, and, rather surprising, Godard.

And that's it? What about the so-called art film? This kind of film is, for Kael, usually even worse than trash. She can appreciate Bergman, although she considers a lot of his work pretentious and vague, but Wenders' Der Amerikanische Freund is a masterpiece for people who think that film is worthwhile only if it makes you suffer. Tarkowski's name is mentioned in For Keeps (1250 pages) only twice, and then as an aside, Fassbinder or Greenaway you won't find at all. Reviewing Blow Up Kael writes that Antonioni's genius is that he complains of dehumanization in a dehumanized way. Et cetera. Films like these suffer from a cinematic minority complex. Trash is bad and sinful; people want to be taken seriously and thus come to represent official culture. This minority complex affects the art-house audience as well. They appreciate movies that make you suffer (with suffering being taken as sign that a film is not trash), and they derive from, in the parlance of our day, politically correct films the same as the mass-audience does from trash, namely wish-fulfillment.

5. Art and Science

Kael's work has been criticized severely. Auteurism and the controversy about Raising Kane aside, this mostly concerns the coherence of her work, and her handling of visuals and technique. Edward Murray's essay Pauline Kael and Pluralistic, Nonaesthetic Criticism is exemplary. He considers Kael's low interest in the visuals a major shortcoming, since film, he says, is the pre-eminently visual medium. Kael wouldn't agree: film is the form of art that comes closest to total art. (And she's right. The term `pre-eminently visual' should be reserved for art that is pre-eminently visual indeed: drawing, painting, sculpting etc. Watching a soundless film is an odd experience.) Generally, Kael considers too much attention for technique a variety of estheticism: you lose track of what we go to the movies for. What counts is what Renoir (or Tolstoy) do, not how they do it.

Regarding the coherence, it usually isn't very hard to find deficiencies of the like in some one's work. And this goes for Kael too. To give an example: in Trash, as elsewhere, she speaks of art, without indicating that she uses the term alternately descriptive and prescriptive. Murray however suggests that Kael's work isn't scientific, and that is absurd. He criticizes her for using and defending alternately analytical, sociological, esthetical and subjective methods. But this is exactly what an eclectic (or pluralistic) attitude is! Kael does not practice science; for her, `art' is an opposite to `science'.

The real problem of Kael's method is that the idiosyncrasy cannot be conquered; her forte is at the same time her weakness. Kael's loathe of art-films, a loathe I often share, results in highly entertaining pieces, but she interprets the appreciation of those films in terms of psychological needs. There is certainly something to say for that, but is it all there is to say about it? If Kael talks about generalizations, shouldn't she accept the appreciation for Wenders and Antonioni as a given? Perhaps she should, but as far as she is concerned, direct experience is the fundamental given. The obvious argument, from her perspective, against the above-mentioned suggestion would be that it might make some sense to do so, but that it would be in inventory, and not criticism proper. Which brings us back to the idiosyncratic starting point. Kael's criticism is an `I find'.

Problems like these are inevitable if you give experience first and final say - there is nothing to judge the experience by. If we disagree, it's your experience versus mine. Her humanistic perspective certainly supplies coherence, but ultimately, as any general outlook, it cannot be defended, and therefore doesn't offer any release in this context. You might consider this a pity, but what to do about it? The call for objectivity is understandable, but would objectivity - if it exist at all - be of any help? Practitioners of the `hard' sciences are prone to quarrel too. The value of Kael's work is that she does exactly what may be expected from art: revealing the general by describing the particular. The question whether it is true is of a secondary order: art is not refutable.


Cinemazine.com (http://www.cinemazine.com/engels/archief/kael/eng0.html - link no longer works)

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